Qissa Anup Singh
Published Oct 08, 2014Though it's initially set in 1947, during the partition of the British Indian Empire, Qissa eschews the biopic format, making it clear from the outset that this is a spiritual journey of metaphorical, compounding generational suffrage, in the form of a folktale rather than a work of politicking or heavy-handed histrionics.
The weight of Diasporic malaise permeates the slow-moving, skilfully framed images without preaching or telling, starting with the experiences of Umber Singh (Irrfan Khan), a Sikh forced to flee his village during the cleansing, before focusing on how this conflict shaped generations to come utilizing the unique experience of Umber's only son, Kanwar (Tillotama Shome).
As Umber builds a new life with his wife and several daughters, it's clear that there's something off about his lad. His sisters poke at him, trying to find out what he's hiding under his clothes and his father, concerned about his namesake and losing his identity, comes up with creative excuses for things like menstruation and the development of breasts, refusing to acknowledge that Kanwar is actually a young woman.
Director Anup Singh evades sensationalising this play on gender, pointing out the obvious problems associated with raising a girl as a boy, without fussing or creating any unwarranted melodrama from it. Kanwar's confusion of identity — something that becomes increasingly problematic over the years — is kept repressed and subdued until (s)he's mentally ready to process just what this all means.
While this distanced approach to the subject, which is intended to be somewhat mystical and fatalistic, channelling notions of destiny, does give an air of dignity and intent, it also makes it very difficult to engage with. Once Kanwar is married off to a woman of from a lower caste — the daughter of a gypsy — we understand the implications, knowing that Umber is reluctantly acquiescing to the corner he's put himself in, but are left too far from the characters and their experiences to really care.
Eventually, emotional blowouts arise — Umber's assertion that Kanwar suffered an "injury" during childhood is transparent — but since very little characterizations or relationship developments have occurred prior, aside from a slapping and hair-pulling session, they're more observed than inhabited. This isn't to suggest that the actors aren't invested; in fact, Shome, despite being slightly miscast — her body language and type are far too feminine to convince — gives a very intense performance as someone cast out into the world with a false persona.
However, because Singh has already established a distanced, observant structure and is reluctant to explain anything, it's appreciated more than it affects. Resultantly, the third act spiritual shift when ghosts help guide everyone's destiny is more curious than powerful, not quite reaching the apex everything has been building up to.
Still, the attempt to create a work that captures the feeling of cultural and identity confusion, rather than spelling it out, is quite commendable. It's just unfortunate that perspective wasn't factored into the strong emotional tapestry hiding beneath the surface, making the outcome unintentionally ironic.